The world has been tried and tested in 2020. What we do in 2021 may determine how we bounce back, and who will benefit the most.
As I write this column, news has broken that Cyclone Yasa has inundated Vanua Levu, the second largest island in Fiji, killing two people. In an ordinary year, climate change and the extreme weather events associated with it would have dominated our newsfeeds. After all, the Arctic’s zombie fires, Canadian ice-shelf calving and innovative AI-based wildfire haze prediction models are the kinds of subjects that make for catchy headlines, if not solid action.
In a year of pandemics, paranoia and a bitter US presidential election, the damage to our planet has come a distant second to more personal battles for survival. As our personal worlds have shrunk in accessible size, so it seems has our ability to imagine the macro-scale calamities occurring beyond the macro-scale calamity that is COVID-19. As Dr Sandra Piesik put it in a piece for The Citymaker commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement:
“In the space of a single week, in November 2020, Hurricane Lota caused tragic devastation in Central America, whilst the Philippines were placed under a ‘state of calamity’ following Typhoon Vamco. Equally tragic examples seem to occur on an almost weekly basis amidst an already unprecedented challenge to livelihoods and jobs.”
That’s not to say this hasn’t been a year without hope. National governments have acted both collectively and individually to accelerate vaccine development and clinical trials timelines. Within the span of a handful of months, several candidates have been developed, tested and approved. Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is already being administered to citizens in the UK and the USA.
We’ve made enormous advances in space; SpaceX sent a crewed capsule to the Internal Space Station (ISS) in November, the same month that China successfully launched its Chang’e 5 lunar probe. And a young Malaysian, eight-year-old Zyson Kang, won a NASA competition with his design for a lunar-gravity toilet that may also have applications for emergency workers here on earth.
Innovations in automation, robotics and artificial intelligence have kept us working, educated, entertained and supplied, as I in wrote about in The Strange Year of WFH. The biggest success story of the year has arguably been the often overlooked infrastructure that underpins our world. The resilience of economic and social systems, manufacture, distribution, agriculture and food production. The resilience of the pillars of the online world and, of course, the resilience of people themselves.
Whatever context it’s used in, resilience describes our ability to absorb external shocks and bounce back from them. There was a genuine fear at the start of the year that a globally interdependent world might start to unravel. That supply chains built around a just-in-time model might collapse, that closed borders and movement controls might disrupt the transport and shipping of goods and raw materials. That fields might lie fallow or unpicked harvests would rot on the vine.
We worried that the distributed protocols and infrastructure of the Internet might crumble under the strain of billions of people using it as their primary communication and commerce tool. Despite the economic and social devastation, financial markets in many countries are rising, with many of the world’s largest companies having both weathered the pandemic and prospered.
Lessons have been learned. As my co-host Maya Tan brought up on the Reflexive City, quoting futurist and author, Amelia Kallman in the Zoomsday Predictions: “One thing we’ve learned from this pandemic is that we can’t rely on a single-source foreign supply chain. Supply chains have to be both local and global for us to survive; however, the immediate reality is that a lot of businesses don’t have the support they need to make it through this time, especially if they are competing with a company like Amazon.”
The threats that face the world won’t be eradicated because we bring a disease under control. How equitable the provision and rollout of vaccination efforts are may decide which countries can rebound both socially and economically in 2021 and beyond. At the time of writing, there are fears that the World Health Organisation’s COVAX vaccine development programme, with its commitment to deliver 2 billion doses of coronavirus vaccine to 91 low and middle-income countries by the end of 2021, might be on the verge of failure.
We are right to celebrate the innovations and successes of the year: the economic stimulus and income support schemes that have staved off financial collapse, hunger and homelessness for millions. The health systems that have buckled but not broken under extraordinary pressure. The municipal authorities that have acted to make cities more walkable and cycle-friendly, and have brought essential services closer to people’s homes at a time when their movements have been restricted by lockdowns.
But we also have to ensure that we don’t forget the lessons of 2020. COVID-19 has been described as a once-in-a-century pandemic. As the earth heats up, its natural resources destroyed, and its animals forced into ever-closer proximity with humans, we have to ensure that we can cope with and mitigate persistent shocks and more frequent pandemics. Many writers have described this year as a time to pause and reassess. There are historical precedents that suggest that, as a species, we’re at least as likely to repeat our mistakes as to move past them. As we plan for this uncertain future, we have to ensure that our milestones and breakthroughs create more than a few click-worthy social media moments.
The Futurist is a regular column by Matt Armitage for The Citymaker.